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Atomic fire blossomed, whiting out the rear-facing sensors of the Dreadstar. First Prince Tavram scowled as his final Malagath warship disappeared from the battle reader, spent to allow him the opportunity to escape. A regrettable sacrifice, if necessary. Avoidable? Perhaps. Foreseeable? Absolutely not; this convoy was a secret even from the admiralty. Conclusion? Betrayal. The ambush had been swift and perfect. Likewise, the retribution would be equally so, in due time. For now, survival in the next few moments became the paramount task.
The Dirregaunt mastery of ambush was unparalleled within the known galaxy. Their vessels lurked, invisible to the naked eye at this distance, and cooled down to avoid sensor detection. From as far as a hundred thousand kilometers away they fired pre—charged banks of laser batteries, slicing metal and composite before closing to finish the work. The Malagath Prince knew the ships, knew the face of their commander, and knew the battle would not end with his retreat. Dirregaunt considered themselves the greatest of predators, and they would pursue him across the stars.
His helmsman said something, a buzz in his ears as a series of smaller explosions on the screen represented the remaining fighters being cut down by high-wavelength lasers. He lifted a blue, three-fingered hand to the helmsman and the remaining screens blurred as the Dreadstar’s emergency engine fired, jumping the envoy frigate with her few survivors. His convoy died to provide him time to plot the calculations and activate the engine, generating a mass field outside the ship substantial enough to initiate a space-tear. It was the last jump the Dreadstar would ever make. Almost all her engineers were dead and her engines lay damaged beyond repair. His fate and the fate of his crew now rested with whomever chanced upon his distress signal. He prayed to the first stars it would not be Best Wishes.
On the bridge of the Springdawn, commander Best Wishes tapped his claws together with a mixture of consternation and elation. Technically, he had failed his mission objective. The Dreadstar fled, despite several large holes in her hull. The emergency engine was a new addition for which he had not been briefed and it allowed for a space fold to carry the Dreadstar away from battle. Rather than an easy pursuit, Best Wishes would be forced to extrapolate his trajectory based on space-time distortions his sensors read from the emergency engine. But once he followed, he would find the Dreadstar hanging limp. The severity of the hull compromises would cause compression shear should the First Prince attempt to accelerate past light speed, leaving the Dreadstar stranded wherever they emerged. A failed objective, but an opportunity to continue the hunt.
Best Wishes did not consider himself bloodthirsty. Rather, he carried a grudging respect for the Malagath and relished the opportunity to test himself further. Respect for their military prowess, if not their ideals. The Malagath culture was brutal and cruel and self-serving, antithetical to Dirregaunt philosophies. Few had more blood on their hands than the Malagath royal family, and the First Prince was the architect of several notable Dirregaunt defeats.
He considered for a moment. His ships had not gone unscathed by the exchange. For whatever else they were, the Malagath were excellent fighters. They managed to destroy two of his frigates and cripple one of his battleships, extrapolating their positions even under fire and lancing them with particle cannons before the Dirregaunt ships began to move.
“Master hailman,” he said, “I do not believe we require an entire battle group to pursue a single crippled frigate. Signal the Surf and the High Rain to return to the staging station.”
He turned to his first officer, Modest Bearing, who had been with his command for almost as long as he’d had a command. “I should like the science team working immediately. Determine where the First Prince has gone, then plot a route,” he ordered. His will carried out, he turned his four eyes back to the viewport where the exhaust residue of the Dreadstar’s emergency engine expanded in an icy cloud at the edge of their magnification.
“You cannot run from me, First Prince.”
The Condor pushed away from the derelict hulk. There was little of value left aboard the Morning Spear, but the Vultures stole it anyway. It was what they called a cold wreck. No signs of life, no hot reactor, and not one of the Big Three. Malagath, Dirregaunt, Kossovoldt; those were the name of the game. Lately, Captain Victoria Marin of the Union Earth Privateers had run as cold as that salvaged wreck tilting out of her ship’s forward monitors. Six weeks without good salvage would put her command in the red right fast. Trouble was, word across the Orion Spur said there had been no recent battles between the Big Three or their proxies anywhere within range of her little puddle jumper.
Odd that, since she was in a rough part of the galaxy. Hell, all of humanity was. Earth sat practically dead center in the Orion Spur, a no-man’s land providing a bridge of stars directly between the frontiers of the Malagath and Dirregaunt pushing in from the Perseus Arm and the Kossovoldt from the Sagittarius Arm towards the Galactic Core. Right where she would expect them to be fighting. She wouldn’t encounter Kossovoldt in this area, a species so prominent that the local galaxy had based a common language off their influence, but the Malagath Empire and Dirregaunt Praetory? You could hardly pull them away from each other’s throats in this neck of the woods. They hated each other so much that they rarely left anything big enough to salvage anyway. Half their ships had been in service since before humans put a probe in space, but even the scrap was more valuable than her beloved Condor. Yet … no battles. Something was going on.
Victoria turned to her navigation officer.
“Huian, take us out of here. Growl Red while you’re at it and have him report to the wheelhouse. He better have good news.”
“Aye Skipper,” said Lieutenant Wong. Victoria scowled behind the young Chinese woman’s back as she stood from the captain’s chair. Little blue-water puke up-jumped to space duty for being someone’s daughter. Nothing against the little shit personally, but Victoria hated her rosters being mucked by political pull. Space was dangerous enough without the added variable of political nepotism.
Ducking through the hatch from the conn she made her way down two ladders, swinging past the galley and entering the officer’s mess under the hand carved wooden plaque, labeling the compartment ‘The Wheelhouse’. Once inside she made a beeline for the wet stores, snagging a tumbler from the wall on her way. Christ she needed this. As she was pouring the whiskey she heard the swish of the magnetic seal behind her and smelled a body recently freed from an extended vacuum suit vacation. She turned to Red Calhoun, the commander of her marines, still in his armored vacuum suit.
“Christ, Red, you could have at least dressed down. Drink with me.”
The big Scotsman squeezed around the table grabbing a glass for himself. “Orders were to report to the wardroom, Vick. ‘Sides, I dress down and it gives you an excuse to stare at my ass.”
Victoria scoffed, “Don’t kid yourself. I’ve seen what you’re pushing. I wouldn’t write home about it,” she said.
Not entirely true, the marine had good broad shoulders and strong calloused hands. And combat experience was always a plus when serving a tour in her bunk. Not that she would ever tell any of this to Red.
“Anyway,” she continued, pouring a few fingers into the second glass, “Anything good?”
There was a static sensation in the air and a change in the tone of the reactor as the Condor slid into the superluminal compression of her FTL drives. Outside, the ship began to move back towards the system’s star for a horizon jump. Large space-time distortions were needed to enter a horizon jump. The closer to a star, the easier it became. Getting out was another matter, more of an art than a science. The hairs on Victoria’s arms stood up, as they had every FTL slide since she had first climbed aboard an interstellar ship. It made her feel chilly, though every doctor she’d seen said it was psychosomatic.
Red washed his throat before answering. “A few high-freq conduits, burnt out core and storage matrixes, identification and effects of a few of the floaters and a functioning UV spectrum laser. Third generation, Tallidox made. Reactor was scuttled, but Aesop pulled some incomplete logs and schematics off a drive. Kid’s a wizard with xenotech.”
“In other words, garbage,” she said.
“In other words…” said Red, nodding slowly to himself. Victoria sighed, “You know what happens if we can’t haul in any decent thieving.”
“I know, I know. We get to Taru station without collateral and no one will extend us more credit. Ship gets stranded and we have to wait for the Huxley to pay down our debt and lend us some fuel.”
“And you know I hate owing Jax shit. That cocksucker and his three missing teeth still haven’t let me hear the end of it from last time. Never mind when we hauled his ass out of the fire after he got those Graylings on his wake. Don’t take to being ransomed, Graylings.”
Red chuckled over his glass, “You remember when we pulled him outta what was left of the Dolphin? He was grinning so wide I thought his face’d get stuck like that. What’d he get on that haul?”
“Shit, that was the run he made off with the undamaged core manifold what let the third gen Kosso hulks push past 120c wasn’t it? Old tech to them, almost ancient really, but we’re still figuring it out Earth-side. That’s why they gave him the Huxley. Shit, 120 times the speed of light? We do that, and we’ll be hopping between stars in just a couple days. Without a horizon drive. We’re going to go from 40 worlds to 400 before the xenos can blink. Let’s see ‘em try to push us out of the Orion Spur then.”
“That’s still a long way off, Vick. How about we start with making it back to human space?”
The two sat in silence for a time before it was interrupted by the mechanical chirp of the growler. Vick picked up the analogue receiver. Ancient tech even so far as humans were concerned, sound powered and nigh infallible the privateer fleet still made use of them for internal communications.
“Wheelhouse, Captain speaking.”
“Wheelhouse sensors, Ma’am. We’re getting a deliberate distress signal. Encrypted but it’s a Malagath Codec. The crypto computer broke it down enough for a location. It’s within Horizon range, three rungs up on the azimuth and almost on the way to Taru. Could even be hot, origin is two days old maybe.”
“Shit Avery, that’s Big Three, why’d you wait so long to tell me?”
“Wanted to confirm it first, Vick. I’ll go ahead and kick it over to Huian.”
Victoria slammed down the receiver and opened up the command network console in her retinal implants. She watched excitedly as Huian received the information and made the necessary course adjustments to change their Horizon drive destination. She stood up to activate the main circuit and address the crew but found Red had already done it for her, smiling his wide, toothy smile.
“This is the Captain.” She grinned back.
“At 1900 hours we detected a distress call within horizon range. It’s Big Three, people, maybe even hot. We’ll be activating the horizon drive at 2050 hours. General quarters will be at 0230 hours. You know what this means. Rest up if you’re not on watch, all drills are on hold. Marin out.”
The cheer from the crew was audible through the metal hull of the Condor and Victoria couldn’t help feeling proud. Even if the cheers were as much for the cancelled damage control drills as for the prospect of hot salvage. Her Vultures were the best privateers in deep space as far as she was concerned. And damn if Earth wasn’t getting awful tiny in the rear-view mirror all the way out here.
“Red, you gonna get some sleep before GQ?”
He raised an eyebrow, “You?”
“Now? Shit no. I just hope no one beats us there.”
“And I need to debrief my marines, and then brief them back up again, and find time for a shower in there somewhere.”
In her current mood Victoria wouldn’t mind debriefing one of his marines personally. “Malagath Imperials, what can we expect if there are survivors?” she asked.
“Well if the ship is in good shape we’re looking at a tactical Alcubierre drive, high density particle cannons, gravitic seekers.”
“Shit. If they were in good shape there’d be no distress call.”
“I agree. We manage to board, it gets a little simpler. Toxic atmo is likely, but meaningless to a marine in a vac suit. We’re looking at masers and little to no tactical discipline. They haven’t had an infantry battle in centuries. The ablative plates should do for the marines and I doubt the Malagath have seen a slug rifle since they went to space.”
It was probably true, when humanity first entered the galactic arena they found it packed to the rafters with over a hundred other races; all at uneasy odds with each other, and none of whom still used kinetic weaponry. By and large most had made it about as far as the musket before weaponizing light, heat, accelerated particles, or radiation. Battery and energy production technologies in the galaxy-at-large were an area in which Earth struggled to catch up.
So, now she was headed toward a hulk manned by one of the Big Three. She considered the potential salvage, tapping her fingers on her tumbler. No telling what the Union Earth would do to get their hands on that tech. Or for that matter, what some of the local players might do to keep it out of U.E. hands. Red picked up his helmet and left, leaving her alone with the whiskey. She poured herself another.
Best Wishes examined the data brought to him by the science team. For three days they circled the departure point of the Dreadstar, attempting to extrapolate the trajectory and likely emergence destinations with what little they knew of the Dreadstar’s emergency engine. High math. Nigh impossible, he would have thought, but his science team was unparalleled. He thanked the master astrotician and gave the order to his navigator. The Springdawn lurched into action, accelerating back towards the distant pinprick of the local star at almost 250 times the speed of light. Best Wishes did not have access to the single-use gravitic generator of the Dreadstar’s emergency engine. They would have to use the gravity field of the red dwarf to pounce across the stars towards his prey. But he had the scent. It was only a matter of hours now. The Malagath ship fled further in a single jump than the span of most of the lesser empires, but the Springdawn could match it. They were both far from any allies.
First Prince Tavram huddled in the cold interior of the Dreadstar bridge with the nine remaining crew of his original fifty. Habitation control was a luxury they could not afford while emergency power dwindled. The hull breaches exposed the interior of the vessel to the chill of deep space, and with the reactor offline no waste heat was being produced to replace what was lost. Entropy might kill them before ever Best Wishes determined which way they had fled.
“My Prince,” a ragged voice called from the sensor display. Tavram turned toward his youngest crewmember, Aurea, a female of only twenty solar cycles. His junior engineer, now his senior engineer. She looked up at him, face illuminated by the display, “A ship has entered the system, it is accelerating towards us.”
“Is it the Springdawn? Send a signal, let us be done with this one way or another.”
“No my prince, it is moving too slowly, I cannot believe it is Dirregaunt. And I am getting very little data, nothing further than confirming that there is something coming. They should be on the optical now but even visually there is nothing.”
“Sending the distress call again, short range,” another voice rasped. His impromptu communicator. Previously his ship’s cook. Everyone’s voice was labored; carbons were building up in the ship’s atmosphere. Tavram pulled up the optics display on his own console, tuning it to the proper bearing. Aurea had been right, there was nothing. At this range … wait, there. A star winked out. Another followed shortly, and then another along the same vector. Soon a profile began to emerge. The ship was matte black, like nothing he recognized. Had they been purposefully flying between stars to prevent a visual cue? A predatory tactic. The folds of skin on Tavram’s slender throat began to grow moist as the ship’s profile hardened. A primal reaction. Fear? No. Caution. Wariness of the unknown.
It was small, perhaps half the size of the Dreadstar. Odd lines. No elegance. An ugly craft. He couldn’t place it with any of the lesser empires he was familiar with.
In a matter of minutes, the alien ship pulled alongside the Dreadstar. While obviously slow to transit, her helmsman handled her beautifully, matching the Dreadstar’s unstable spin with maneuvering engines. Tavram wondered what the newcomers used to perform the maneuver. Some sort of gravitic adjustors? Subspace repulsors?
The Dreadstar jolted with a metallic thump and a spike in the passive electromagnetic sensors. Magnetic locks. Primitive, inefficient, but effective. Two more impacts resonated through the hull and the ship began to vibrate as the view through the forward monitors slowly ceased spinning. Now what? Would they tow the Dreadstar back to the system’s core and attempt a joined space tear?
He was still postulating when a new sound came from the hull, one that could be mistaken for nothing else. Footsteps. Several of the remaining crew looked panicked, and even Tavram sucked in a breath of stale air. Space walkers, children’s tales to frighten cadets. Creatures who crossed the vacuum to steal souls, who walked in the void. No, this was just an unfamiliar lesser empire, using primitive technology. It must not be …
“My prince, the sunward habitat chamber near the foremost hull breach has been … compromised. The seal has been forced open, atmosphere is venting.”
“By the first stars,” uttered a voice.
“Quiet,” Tavram ordered. He pulled up the airlock status on his console. The venting had ceased. Had the stress on the ship from the docking caused it? Plausible. The chamber was isolated, in full vacuum now.
The icon for the inner habitation chamber hatch began to flash on his screen. Mechanical failure. First stars, the spacewalkers were in the ship! And he could do nothing as he tracked their progress. Nothing except buy himself a few more seconds. He ordered the survivors into position, interposing them between himself and the door. They had no weapons, but they might serve to distract while he got a few shots off. His heart raced, the cartilage in his joints expanded. These were ancient fight-or-flight traits encoded in his genome he’d not felt in years.
Even deathly thin as the atmosphere was, his entire crew’s labored breathing was silent. Metallic sounds from the other side of the bulkhead were translating through the metal floor. Tavram could feel the vibrations of the spacewalkers. He fingered the single handheld maser kept on the bridge, and raised it in a ready stance. It was heavy in his hands, burdened with the weight of his lineage’s survival. It wouldn’t do much good against a serious enemy but the polymer grip was comforting.
Two metal prongs slid through the join in the hatch, startling a cry of alarm from his remaining crew. A mechanical whir, then the prongs began to pry the door open. The device forcing the door open was pulled away. Behind it stood several short, stocky figures. They were matte black like the alien ship had been, except for plating lining their chests and shoulders that was just slightly glossy. Two arms, two legs as evolution had produced on countless worlds as a most efficient design. In their hands they held their primitive xeno weaponry. Long, black, and slim he could not tell if it was some kind of maser like the one he had leveled or perhaps a particle beam. The array of soldiers spread into the room, fingers kept off what must be triggers for the moment. Two of the alien weapons were pointed at him while the rest scanned across his crew looking for additional threats. They found none. Their movement was martial, economical, and precise. No motion was wasted, no part of the bridge unchecked.
Tavram stared through the shaking optics of his maser at what he thought was the leader, but in truth all eight looked identical. A veteran of several space engagements, he had yet to fire a personal weapon at anyone in his life. As he looked down the gaping tunnel of that alien’s weapon he did the only thing he could think to do for any hope of survival. He lowered the maser.
The change in the space walkers was instantaneous. Their deadly muzzles on their weapons lowered, their posture more relaxed, if still tight. The tallest of them reached out and took the maser from his hand. He didn’t resist.
“Is there a leader among you?” he asked. The largest stepped forward.
“I am Major Red Calhoun, of the Condor.”
It spoke in Malagath. His voice was tinny, mechanical, unexpected. Tavram had asked in the common Kossovoldt language, but the alien had answered in his own dialect.
“Space walkers!” cried the engineer from behind Tavram, less in terror and more in amazement. He silenced her with a wave. The First Prince switched back to Malagath.
“What is your empire?” he demanded. Red? Did they often name their warriors after visible spectrum light?
“We are human,” it said. Curious. Tavram had never heard of humans, but then he rarely concerned himself with the affairs of the lesser empires. After all, they were little better than animals, and over 1500 had been encountered. Some of them had even been scoured away by the Malagath. Had the emergency engine cause the Dreadstar to invade their space? Surely their primitive vessels could not secure a large place in the stars.
“And your intent?” asked Tavram.
The creature turned its head away, muffled sound came through the helmet, perhaps he was communicating over a shortwave communicator.
He turned back, “Our intent is to salvage mechanical technology from your ship, then take your remaining crew aboard the Condor.” he said.
This was met with wails of anguish behind him, and the creature raised a hand in what he must have thought was a placating gesture. “After which, we intend to return you unharmed to your people, in exchange for what supplies and technology we can barter for you. You will not be harmed in our custody.”
Tavram relaxed. He had heard about outfits such as these from the lesser empires. Scavengers who picked the bones of the great battles in hopes of finding any functioning wreckage. Likely these space walkers intended to take anything valuable back to the planet Human to study. Though most were not interested in dealing with survivors, and tended to wait until there were none to move in. Some were even less interested in waiting than others.
“In the interest of self-preservation, human Red, I must inform you that we are being hunted, a Dirregaunt specialist has been tasked with eliminating this ship.”
The alien quickly bobbed his head a single time. Curious gesture. “We don’t plan to stay long once we get your people aboard. What is the most valuable asset aboard this ship that we can easily remove?”
The first prince gestured to himself, “You are speaking with him, human Red.”
In the dark between stars, the Springdawn flew bereft of all light. More than half-way through the horizon jump they detected the superluminal distress call carrying Malagath encryption. They couldn’t read it, but out this far there was little doubt what it could be. The Dreadstar was in truly dire straits. His science team’s calculations had been almost perfect; on a stellar scale it was practically next door to their intended destination. Best Wishes complimented his astroticians and set the instructions for the next leg of their journey. Now with the distress signal’s origin they could pinpoint the Dreadstar’s location to within a few thousand meters and emerge from the second horizon jump with the laser capacitors already charged. Foolish to give themselves away.
“Detach the coupling here, Human Aesop. I am sorry there is so little functioning salvage for your crew.”
She spoke in the lilting and fluttery tones of the Malagath language, an approximate translation relayed to Aesop’s retinal implants. It was hard to believe she belonged to one of the most dangerous species in space, or that she probably viewed him as barely alive. Most species avoided contact with the Malagath where possible, they had a reputation for amorality that made most starfaring species nervous. Or dead.
The Malagath technician was wearing one of the vacuum suits the Vultures unpacked for taller humanoid rescues. It still looked uncomfortable, short and wide on her, but she quickly adjusted to the novelty of working in the vacuum of space. She still showed the fear her compatriots had during the transit to the Condor, but at least she was shielded from the intense black expanse her people so feared.
Aesop depressed the spots she directed and the fusion coupling separated from the reaction train, or at least what he thought was the reaction train. This ship was so advanced he barely recognized anything. His retinal implants were going nuts trying to scan and label it all, interfacing with the computer on his vacuum suit, it in turn networking with the Condor. He pulled the coupling from a larger piece he would have loved to tear out, but would have to cut a larger gap in the hull to carry it away. Most of it had holes anyway, which didn’t help matters much. Even damaged, any engine parts were going to be e extremely valuable to Union Earth researchers, but the entire drive had been shot to hell by the Dirregaunt ambush. He passed the coupling to Aurea who pushed it through the hull breach to their waiting skiff.
He’d take this ship apart bolt by bolt if the Old Lady would let him. The captain of what he’d learned was named the Dreadstar insisted they leave immediately for Malagath space. Captain Marin insisted otherwise. Refugees were well and good, but they needed cold hard salvage to get enough credit at one of the neutral stations to refuel in order to get the new tech to friendly space.
His radio beeped in his ear, retinal display showing the captain’s override circuit. He winced. It looked like his fun was over.
“Cohen, I just had a parley with their captain. He’s made a compelling case for not being here any longer. Take what you’ve got and get your ass back to the Condor.”
“Are you sure, Captain? There’s still a lot of tech here I can pry loose.” The line clicked dead. Not one to repeat herself, Captain Marin. He growled into his helmet before switching back to the frequency he shared with the Malagath technician.
“Aurea, they want us back on the Condor. We need to go now.”
The tech slid a hand over the surface of the reactor shell, looking at it with an unreadable expression. Her facial expressions were unfamiliar to him, but her body language was all too recognizable. She regretted having to leave the ship that had been her home. Aesop could sympathize; he’d had a ship shot out from under him before he’d been chartered onto the Condor. The Orion Spur was not a friendly place, especially for species behind the technological power curve.
He followed her to the breach in the hull, bouncing as the charge in the gravity floor plating had almost completely abated. He would have loved to pry those out and take one or two but there wasn’t time. The plates were likely more efficient energy-wise to the stolen tech the Condor was using to generate her own artificial gravity and inertial compensation field.
Aurea reached the breach and then stopped.
“I am … still nervous,” she admitted, “I see the skiff, but I cannot make myself go to it.”
Cohen checked on the ship’s status with his retinal implants. The Condor was going through its Zero-G checklist, which meant he had to get back and strap down all the new salvage as well as the skiff. “Look, we don’t have time for this. Just hold on to me and I’ll take us over, ok?”
The tech switched places with him, wrapping her long fingers around his shoulders. The gloves of the suit fit her well. They were a plastic polymer that shrunk to form-fit whatever size hand was in them for maximum dexterity, albeit with two extra fingers the Malagath did not need. Her added mass was almost nothing as he maneuvered through the hole in the outer plating. The skiff waited just beyond, and behind it, the open bay of the Condor. He gently pushed off, feeling Aurea tense up against his back, but she did not cry out. He reached out for the skiff, transferring his momentum to it and making small adjustments with the thrusters to get them back in the bay. The bay door slid shut as he was barely through and the hum of the sublight engines greeted him as the ship immediately began to accelerate. The old lady must have a powerful need to be gone.
Gravity gradually returned to the bay, and Aesop was able to coax Aurea down off his back, still surprised by how light she was. He supposed he shouldn’t be. Many of the races they came across were adapted to life in space with less need for physical strength and stamina, relying on their technology to do everything for them.
“There, that wasn’t so bad, right?” he asked, locking down the skiff and securing netting around the cargo.
“It was … something I never thought I would do. It was frightening, but exciting. You humans, you do this sort of thing often? Space walking?”
“All the time, Aurea. Every ship we come across, or any time we need to make repairs on the hull. Come on, I’ll show you something you might like a little better. Would you like to see the engine room?”
First Prince Tavram entered the alien ship’s bridge behind her captain. A mask had been fitted over his mouth by the resident doctor to keep the oxygen from entering his respiratory system. That these creatures required the toxic, flammable gas to survive had flabbergasted him. It seemed the more he learned about this strange little race the more mystery lay ahead. They were clearly matriarchal, aligned behind this captain who asserted dominance by baring her teeth at each crewmember she passed, each of whom returned the gesture in kind. They breathed poison, walked in space, greeted each other with threats, and each member of the crew could perfectly understand his language, though most could not speak it and used the lesser Kossovoldt tongue instead when speaking to him and each other. Baffling. He had asked about human language, and learned it was largely tribal and that many of her crew did not speak a common human language.
The ‘ship’ as they called it, was primitive. Simple forged steel construction with obvious joining of different metals and outdated composites. Wires and piping snaked everywhere like thick vines, carrying power, potables, and hydraulic fluids. But it was still ingenious in a barbaric sort of way.
“Captain Ma’am, Sergeant Cohen is aboard and we’re on our way as ordered.”
“Good, hold steady, max acceleration. Build us up some speed, I have a bad feeling. How’s the trajectory for a horizon shot?”
“Nav computer has it locked in steady with the star’s gravity. We’ll have broken line of sight with the Dreadstar when we make the jump. We’ll need one more star before we can hit Taru station. ETA to jump five two minutes.”
Nav computer? Who would trust such delicate computations to a computer? Were they jumping one star at a time? Perhaps these humans with their primitive brains were more limited than he thought. After all, they had only been among the stars for the last hour of the Malagath Empire. According to their captain, anyway. There was much she had been reluctant to discuss. From his forced crouch he could see the navigation monitor, though the numerals on it weren’t Kosso standard. Not much to be learned there. There was a third seat in the command center of the Condor, marked with a cross and a circle. He took it, his knees somewhere by his shoulder made for an uncomfortable position, though better than hunching beneath the low ceiling.
“Control, sensors. Photon Doppler detected, superluminal contact bearing relative one-eight-zero, one-four degrees azimuthal out of the horizon.”
“Sensors, conn aye. Shit that was quick. Yuri, you get all that? Shutter the drives, turn on the GSD.” The captain flicked a switch, turning the open receiver to the main circuit, “This is the Captain speaking. A superluminal contact has been detected, we are engaging the gravitic stealth device and going ballistic. Stow for Zero-G,” she turned to Tavram, “You’re going to be floating here in a second, chief. Strap into that stay.”
The subtle shuddering of the ship ceased as the engines were shut down. Their constant hum was replaced by a new oscillation, a strengthening of the artificial gravity drive, he thought. His weight began to lessen, and he attached the lanyard the captain had pointed out. He still felt slightly panicky and, though he would never admit it, somewhat sick. Malagath artificial gravity could be localized practically to square meters
“Full ballistic, ma’am,”
“Good, bring up the Dreadstar on the main screen.”
“I do not understand, human Victoria. We are simply flying in a straight line in hopes he will not see us?”
“Not now, chief. When we’re out of it.” She replied. Tavram chafed at being addressed so by this lesser empire captain. Her tiny ship barely had room for her ego, it seemed. And yet she had saved his life at risk to her own. This ‘privateer’ as she had called it, who knew the value and safety of a rescued spacefarer. Pragmatic? Astoundingly so, and reasonable if rigid. Martial yet disciplined. Primitive yet, well, resourceful. The rational side of him looked forward to learning more about them on the trip back to the Malagath Empire. If they survived the next few minutes, at any rate. Unlikely, as they would be picked up in the first round of the Springdawn’s active sensors.
The Dreadstar appeared on the monitors and Tavram’s neck folds moistened, a reaction of the increased blood flow and body temperature. Such detail. It was as if his broken and battered ship were still abreast of the Condor.
“Control, sensors. Here she comes, Vick.”
“Thanks Avery. Steady on course, Huian.”
Again Tavram was impressed, until he remembered that the Condor had probably stolen the superluminal sensor technology from another empire. The view screen though, he knew of no one who could produce such optics resolution. Where had they found that?
“Ok people, hold on to your asses.”
There was silence but for the hum of the anti-gravity device. On the screen, hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, a second, massive ship winked out of horizon space less than 100 meters from the Dreadstar, dwarfing it. The sleek lines and narrow profile of the Springdawn was unmistakable, as was the skill of her navigation team. There was a warning from sensors of energy weapon signature, and Commander Best Wishes unleashed his high-wavelength lasers at point blank range. Though the lasers fell outside his visible spectrum their effect on his ship was all too obvious. The metal burned, twisted, and flew apart under their fire. Again and again the lasers cut, pulverizing any section larger than a few meters into space slag. Tavram couldn’t stop himself from keening. It was as though his heart was being pierced by the Springdawn’s fire. Even at this range, the lasers interfered with the optics of the Condor, causing the screen to flash when they fired.
The reactor shielding was breached, though the explosion only harmlessly scattered the remains of his beloved Dreadstar.
The captain turned to him, “You’re sure he’ll ping us?” she asked.
Tavram nodded, attempting to compose himself, “He will. He is thorough, and will take no chances. I am surprised he has not seen the heat signature of your ship already.”
The captain didn’t answer him, instead thumbing the main circuit again.
“This is the Captain. As of 0430 hours the Dreadstar has been destroyed by a hostile Dirregaunt cruiser designated Primary. We are expecting an active sensor pulse imminently. The attenuator is online. It’s going to get a bit warm.”
Sure enough the sensors called it out just as the electro-magnetic wave passed over them.
“Captain, nine-nine point five percent attenuation. Pulse strength recorded at… oh God, 1.2 gigawatts.”
“Fuck, Yuri shut down the attenuator now! If we eat another pulse we’ll all be boiled.”
A wave of heat washed over control and Tavram gasped. Instantly the room had become an oven, the metal rail which he gripped painful to touch. He could see heat shimmers in the air, and every light and screen began to flicker. What happened?
“Engineering, conn. Come in. Engineering, conn. Shit,” the captain thumbed the general circuit, “Damage control parties to engineering.”
Sergeant Aesop Cohen sucked scalding fire into his lungs. At least that’s what it felt like. Beside him, Aurea hung weightless attempting not to touch any of the scalding hot metal that surrounded them as she roused him. He hadn’t felt heat like this since fighting a fire aboard the Hyperion. Thank god the vacuum suit still protected most of his body or he’d be in as bad a shape as the other engineers. They floated at the ends of their lanyards, passed out or worse. Most of engineering was down, both equipment and personnel, and the heat sirens were blaring in his ears. Who knew what damage to the computers the heat had done before they’d automatically shut down. The smell of burnt circuitry was heavy in the air. Faint blue smoke drifted in the dark compartment, illuminated by sporadic flashes from the struggling lights.
“Human Aesop, what is going on?”
He coughed, his throat so dry and rough he could barely speak, “The attenuator. It turns the electromagnetic energy of active sensors into heat energy and disburses it inside the ship. It stops a reflection, but we have to deal with the waste heat.”
“There are no safeguards against this?” asked Aurea, gesturing around them at the smoking equipment.
“We don’t have data on Dirregaunt sensors, 1.2 gigawatts is 10 times the Condor’s peak output. Just for an active sensor sweep? Come on.”
Aesop detached his lanyard and pushed towards the upper deck of engineering.
“Human Aesop, your comrades!”
“We have to shut down the attenuator first. If they pulse again we won’t survive the temperature increase.”
The heat on the upper level was even worse. Aesop pushed past the free-floating form of Chief Engineer Denisov, stopped briefly to check his pulse to make certain Yuri was still alive before continuing towards the firefighting locker. He winced as the latches singed his bare hands, having stowed his gloves and helmet before showing Aurea the engine room. He pulled out two pairs of asbestos gloves, handing one to Aurea. She seemed better able to handle the heat, but she tugged them on anyway, filling only the first two fingers and thumb of each glove.
Pushing himself toward the attenuator he could see shimmering air coming off the device’s vents. It looked fried, but it was built to work at extreme temperatures. “Aurea,” he called, trying to ignore the feeling of his face baking as he drew closer. It was like sticking his face into an oven. “Those cables on the other side are where it interfaces with the matte plating on the hull. When I give you the signal, pull them out. There will be sparks.”
Aesop tore open the fore panel. Smoke billowed out, along with the acrid stench of burned rubber. The gaskets and fan bearings had melted. It was easy to see why, much of the shielding for the cables within had melted together too. Coughing, he plunged his hand in up to the shoulder, trying to keep his cheek from touching the top of the panel. He felt around, looking for the emergency shutoff he knew was there. His finger wrapped around the little lever and he jerked it forward, hoping the innards of the device hadn’t been completely slagged.
The lever cut power to the attenuator from the engine room, but after absorbing a pulse it could self-power for a time off the waste heat, enough to trigger the reactive plating on the hull. Even after shutting it down it was still a danger while hardwired to the plating, but pulling those connections without securing power first would almost certainly start a fire. The lever isolated the attenuator from the ship’s reactor, but the device was still able to self-power from waste heat. The only problem was, any more heat would lead to a fire. Fire killed a ship as dead as any xeno weapon. The Ulysses, the Merit, and the Haldeman had all been lost to shipboard fires. A fire in space doubled in size every 30 seconds and a closed system left nowhere for the smoke to go unless the captain vented the entire atmosphere. It took less than 5 minutes to choke everyone aboard those ships and raise the cabin temperature over 200 degrees Celsius.
“Aurea, now!” he shouted. She braced her feet against the bulkhead, screaming as the heat from the metal burned her right through the thin shoes of her suit. She yanked at the cables, putting the leverage offered by her long legs to use. The thick cords resisted briefly, then snapped free in a shower of sparks. No longer held in place by the tension of the cables, the Malagath technician spun across the engine room, slamming against the bulkhead with a sickening crunch. On the level below he heard the access hatch to the central compartment open and the damage control teams enter the engine room to search for fires and casualties.
Aurea collided with a backup engineering console and was now drifting nearby. He pushed off the attenuator, reassuring her as he moved to thumb the control circuit.
“Bridge engineering, attenuator offline and disconnected.”
The captain’s voice, previously issuing orders to the damage control station switched back to the open microphone, “Engineering bridge aye, what’s your status?”
“Lieutenant Denisov is down, along with the rest of engineering. Lots of burns. No fires that I can see but most of the equipment is offline. Captain, without the attenuator we’re naked, another sweep will spot us.”
“You let me worry about the fucking sensor sweeps, right? You get your ass to the GSD and keep that fucker online. And stay out of damage control’s way if you can. If there’s no fire we’ll circulate the engine room, get some cool air in there at least. We can’t vent in view of that battleship,” said Captain Marin. True to her word, the fans began to hiss, blowing blessedly cool air into the compartment. It was a temporary relief; the ship was only going to get hotter until they could break line of sight with the Dirregaunt ship.
Aurea whimpered beside the console, “I believe my shoulder has broken. But I will help if I can.”
“No, you need to get to DC central and get that looked at.”
“By what doctor? Is your medic versed in Malagath physiology? I am staying.”
He cursed, but she was right. The doc would have no idea how to treat her. “Alright follow me,” he said. He pushed off towards the aft ladder. The gravitic stealth device was on the fore end of the second level, but taking the aft ladder would keep him out of damage control’s way. As he pulled himself down the rungs he saw two crewmembers in firefighting gear floating unconscious engineers back toward the hatch.
“Aesop, where the hell you going?”
“The GSD,” he called back, “It goes offline and that cruiser will spot us whether or not it does another active sweep.” He shouted back.
“Get going then, boy. You waiting on an invitation?”
Aurea followed closely behind. Nearing the hatch, he swung left to get out of another pair’s way, then bounced to the GSD. The gravitic stealth device wasn’t anything to write home about. No flashing lights, no soft green glow. It was based on tech they stole from the Havash, an amphibious race who developed it to help their ships fly like something other than huge tanks of water. The Havash had adapted it from the Kreesvay, who had stolen it from someone else. On the Condor, it analyzed her mass’ pull on space-time down to the kilogram and pumped out an equivalent antigravity field. It took a lot of power, and wouldn’t work at the same time as the artificial gravity generator so they couldn’t make major acceleration changes while using it. But many hostile xenos used gravitic field analysis in their passive sensor suites, and the GSD hid them from that. After leaving the Mossad, Aesop got his degree in xenotechnology, and had always been shocked at how little the rest of the galaxy had developed stealth warfare. Even the Dirregaunt, who loved ambush tactics, made no effort to remain hidden once battle was joined.
Then again, he reflected as he pulled up the diagnostic panel on the GSD, the ones who are good at it, we don’t know about.
The LCD display was completely cooked, but the device was humming so it hadn’t shut down yet. It had independent heat sinks to deal with the extra waste heat it generated and that’s where the danger lay. Aesop grabbed the diagnostic tool, plugging it into the port of one cooling tower, then the other.
“Shit. Aurea, this thing needs new heat sinks, it’s getting close to burning out. That case there,” he said, pointing. The Malagath technician tore open the shelf, pulling a pair of tall slender heat sinks from within and letting them drift nearby. She was adapting well to the zero-G conditions, despite her injury.
“Good, bring them over here. We’ll have to do it by hand with the automatic system down. I’ll show you what to do.”
“I cannot change these with my broken arm, human Aesop.”
“I know, I’ll do that. Take this tool,” he said, handing her the diagnostic reader, “when I say, hit this button here to open the shielding, and then this one to close it once the new heat sink is installed. Got it?”
“I understand,” she said, taking the diagnostic tool from him.
The shielding slid open and the air began to hiss and shimmer as the heat sink was exposed. Because warming up the place a bit was exactly what they needed to do. If the attenuator had been an oven, this was a forge-fire ready to bake steel. Holding his breath so as not to burn his lungs he grabbed the handle on the heat sink and pulled the red-hot tower out of the GSD, glove sizzling. He let it hang in midair, out of the way for now and quickly shoved in the replacement unit. Aurea closed the shielding. He would have to move the old one to the deck before the gravity was switched back on. If it could switch back on. Hopefully having it offline protected it, otherwise they’d be limited to what acceleration the human body could tolerate, which wasn’t a great deal.
“Why are they like this? Is one enough?” she asked.
Aesop shook his head, “No, the GSD is at the failsafe shutdown. Both towers need to work in tandem or we lose the gravitic field. The attenuator offloads excess heat to other heat sinks across the ship, they’re probably all like this except for the main computer.”
He maneuvered to the other tower and swapped the cord for the diagnostic tool, “Ok, now,” he said.
The shielding slid open. He gripped the handle, tugging against the cooling tower. The heat sink barely budged. He swore, letting go of the handle as the heat began to bleed through the thick firefighting gloves. Looking around desperately he spotted the lanyard on Aurea’s uniform.
“Aurea, I need your tether,” he said. Good girl, he thought as she unhooked it and passed it to him, didn’t even ask why.
Aesop looped the length of cord around the top of the heat sink and slid it down behind. He braced his foot against the base of the tower and heaved again. He felt something sliding and pulled even harder, rope crackling. The heat sink came free, slamming into his chest and bouncing away, missing his face by inches and leaving a shiny streak down the front of his vacuum suit. The wind was knocked from him and he spun out of control until he collided painfully with the water purifier. As fast as he was able he righted himself and shot after the heat sink to stop it from crashing into anything flammable. While he did, Aurea managed to shove the second replacement in and close the shielding with the diagnostic tool.
Aesop winced as the rogue heat sink crashed into the aft hydraulic pump, but managed to catch it before it could smash into the starboard power bus. He reached out for something and found a pipe joint. His momentum shifted direction and he slammed into what would have been the deck of the level above them, had the ship had gravity. He let the heat sink go. They had done it. Aesop began to laugh, deep, so hard it almost hurt.
“Human Aesop what is wrong, are you hurt? You’re frightening me”
Aesop wiped away tears from the corner of his eye with a soot-stained finger, “No Aurea I’m not hurt. Not badly, anyway. I just can’t believe we did it. Though I suppose we’re not out of it yet. You were brilliant, Aurea.”
“Look!” exclaimed Aurea. Aesop twisted to where she pointed in her ill-fitting glove, worried it was some new crisis. But she pointed at the lanyard, spinning slowly through the air. It was on fire from the heat of the second tower, but the flames adhered to the cord in a close sheet in an almost beautiful way. Aesop continued to laugh.
Victoria scowled at the muted optic image of the Springdawn as it began to slide around the horizon of the local star. She watched unblinking for a count of ten before speaking into the open microphone. “Yuri, we back online back there?”
“Aye Captain, still undermanned but we’re good for a dump-and-jump”
“Roger that. Shutdown the gravitic stealth, flush coolant and prep the horizon drive. Oh, and give Cohen a fucking raise.”
She switched the main viewport to the forward aspect and watched the star’s rotation on screen. The ship’s belly banked toward the dwarf star and with the automatic cooling system back online they ejected every spent heat sink where no enemy ship could detect them. Gravity returned and she felt the signature shudder of the horizon drive warming up.
“Miss Wong,” she said, looking at Huian, “Get us the fuck out of here.”
The Condor used the star’s gravity to pierce into horizon space, and rocketed away from the Springdawn and the atomized remains of the Dreadstar.
Best Wishes stood at the fore of the bridge, hands resting upon the bone protuberances of his chest. Before him, the view screen replayed the final moments of the Dreadstar. The attack had been masterful. Swift. Without warning or opportunity for reprisal, as a hunt should be. He had complimented his crew on it. But he would find room for improvement, as he always did. Every skirmish was a lesson and Best Wishes was a scholar of battle. He had to be, for a member of the lower caste who had elevated himself through merit there was no other honor to be had. His ambition would falter, he knew, when he could no longer climb. He would forever do the dirty work of the Praetory. He was doomed to command small battle groups striking from the shadows, never to strategize grand fleet movements.
“Again,” he commanded, all four eyes locked on the screen. His first officer, Modest Bearing, complied with his order. Again the slippery blue-black waves of the interstellar dispersed to reveal the Dreadstar, and moments later the already warm weapons of the Springdawn began to cut her to smaller and smaller pieces. She had been so close to the point of the distress call that they had emerged not only within visual range, but so near that he could have thrown a spanner from one vessel to the other.
So why did something feel wrong?
“Again,” he barked. The recording reset back to the interstellar emergence. “Hold,” he said, raising his hand as the dark waves faded and the Dreadstar appeared. Modest Bearing stopped the recording.
First Prince Tavram’s ship had been without engine power, as evidenced by her stationary position relative to the earlier distress call, and by initial readings recorded before the attack. So then why is she perfectly oriented to the local stellar plane? he wondered. Troubling. He turned away from the screen, “Master detector, bring me the report on the active sweep and the passive sensor analysis if you please.”
The secondary view screen flickered, then displayed the result of the active sweep. Nothing of note, no space junk larger than a few inches across that was not a planet.
“Thermal,” he requested. Again, nothing of note. A small flare of heat near the bearing of the sun shortly after the active sweep, but a small flare was hardly remarkable. “Now show the gravitic,” came the command.
A display of the disturbances in space-time replaced the thermal readout, both real time and at the moment they had warped into the system. This was pointless, if there was anything worth his attention his sensor team would have alerted him at the time. Why did his doubt persist, despite the success of his attack?
“Spectrum.” A list and analysis of elements that made up the wreckage of the Dreadstar appeared before him. He scanned it, unsure of what he expected to find. He stopped partway down. Ionized xenon, attributed to the Dreadstar’s laser banks. But xenon produced lasers in the ultraviolet range, whereas Tavram’s ship had lasers of a yellowing color on the visible light spectrum. Helium-Neon, if he recalled correctly. He scanned down. Sure enough, the discrepancy had been overlooked and there were two gasses attributed to the Dreadstar’s lasers.
“Master detector, give me a bearing for the highest concentration of xenon.”
The sensor officer, Dutiful Heiress, listed a series of numbers. He snuck a glance at her as she looked to her console, but one of her eyes swiveled, dispelling his attempt at subtlety.
“And the thermal discrepancy I noted previously?”
A pause, “The same, my Commander. The very same. But of the active sweep and the gravitic sensors there is nothing.”
Troubling. Best Wishes tapped upon his bone protuberances in consternation. He eyed one of the junior shipmen serving as a bridge runner. Earthen Musk. Best Wishes knew the name of every member of his crew down to the last unranked child. Even the clandestine pets that were smuggled aboard. “You there, Earthen Musk,” he called. The youth shriveled under the attention of his captain. Whether from nerves, or disgust at being forced to serve under one of lower caste, Best Wishes could not be sure. There was plenty of both aboard the Springdawn and within the battle group.
“Run to the archivist, request knowledge of any of the lower empires who use xenon in their propulsion systems.” He looked to the helmsman, “Master handler, take us to the far side of the star, if you would.”
Within minutes the Springdawn was on a smooth parabola, and as the opposite hemisphere of the local star was crested his sensor team detected a vicious tear in local space-time consistent with the interstellar ignition of less evolved drives. Inelegant but effective. So, there was a chance the first prince still lived.
“Master hailman, relay a message to the science team. We have a new destination for them.”
Vick’s Vultures by Scott Warren
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